Dec 11, 2015

Talking to Children about Traumatic Events

Jessica McCloud is a Licensed and Nationally Certified Mental Health Counselor. She attended the University of Vermont for her Bachelor's and Master's degrees. She currently works in Burlington at a middle school as a Student Assistance Counselor. She also has a small private practice in which she specializes in working with children and adolescents experiencing emotional and behavioral challenges. She has nearly a decade of experience working with children and families and has been employed by a variety of community nonprofits, including the Howard Center in Burlington where she worked as an Early Childhood Mental Health Counselor. Jessica lives in South Burlington with her husband and two young sons.

Talking to Children About Traumatic Events

In recent years and in the last month especially, the news has been full of reports of acts of terrorism and violence around the world and in our own country. Headlines like these can feel overwhelming. Fortunately, humans generally have the ability to control and adjust their fear response based on their thinking—which helps us maintain a balanced outlook on life. For our youngest children, who have not yet learned such coping skills, it is important that supportive adults are present in their lives to help them process the scary stories they may overhear and deal with subsequent strong feelings or thoughts. 

Effects on Children

Learning about traumatic events and hearing stressful news can affect a child in various ways, depending on factors such as the child’s:

  • developmental maturity 
  • mood and personality
  • ability to bounce back from difficulties
  • mental health
  • access to supportive adults

Repeated exposure to stressful and upsetting news without support from an adult can cause a child to experience stress, anxiety and fear. Symptoms include but are not limited to: 

  • nightmares
  • sleep problems (i.e., not able to go to sleep, difficulty staying asleep, or sleeping much longer than usual) 
  • headaches 
  • stomachaches 
  • feeling sick
  • irritability
  • anger or aggressive behavior
  • feeling tired 
  • worrying about things more so than usual

Depending on the child, this repeated exposure to trauma can lead to behavioral, social and/or mental health issues.

Talking with Children

When discussing stressful news with a child, the language used will need to vary depending on the child’s age. As a rule of thumb, the younger the child, the simpler the explanation (e.g., “a bad person did a bad thing and it hurt people”). It is important to remember that younger children may see something or hear something and not realize that this is one incident happening in one part of the world. They may believe that this is happening close to them or happening all the time. These younger children may need more frequent reassurance: “You are safe here now with me ... this happened very far away … so far away it would take a plane, a boat and a bus for us to get there.” For older children, it can be helpful and healing to give them the opportunity to think of how they could help. This can be an effective way to cope by increasing hopefulness in the world and reducing the child’s sense of powerlessness.

A great way to approach the conversation with children of any age is to:

  • Start by figuring out where they are with their understanding by asking, “How are you feeling about hearing that or seeing that?” 
  • Invite them to share their thoughts about, and understanding of, the news. 
  • Validate their feelings (“It is scary to see that”; “I feel confused too.”). 

Because adults have the strongest influence over how children develop coping skills to manage strong emotions, it is important for adults to manage their own emotions. Adults can serve as a role model for children by demonstrating healthy coping skills. Parents are their children’s emotional base, but since more than 70 percent of Vermont’s kids have all available parents in the labor force, children also find support from their child care provider or another caregiver. If a child is upset and they see their parent or caregiver scared, anxious or upset, this can be unsettling for the child. If the child is upset and they see their parent or caregiver calm, this can have a calming effect on the child. Helping children to cope with difficult emotions is called affective management.

Available Resources 

If a child has lingering symptoms as described above, or there are changes in the child’s day-to-day functioning, parents should consider discussing this with the child’s pediatrician, a professional counselor or a child care provider.

More information can be found online through the Center for Social and Emotional Education and the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence.

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